Faijan our Jungle Hero!

This USF Tropical Restoration Ecology field class has contained many memorable moments, one of these being meeting the local community here in Batu Puteh. In this post I am spotlighting our good friend and guide here at KOPEL BHD, Mohd Faijan bin Mustapah.

Faijan was born and raised in Batu Puteh village here in the Kinabatangan region of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. He is the second youngest of 9 children and when he was nine years old his mother passed away. Faijan began to cook meals for his entire family. Faijan woke up daily at 5am to make food for his large family. Faijan’s father, Mustapah bin Dawangsa, supported his many children as a cast net fisherman along the Kinabatangan river. In accordance with local land allotment policy, Faijan’s father also received 15 acres of land which is now being utilized for small-scale palm oil production by the family.

Figure 1. Faijan our field guide extraordinaire.

Faijan is passionate about the environment and as a youth would regularly accompany his father and other relatives on multi-day trips into the jungle, with only a gun and an empty bottle for water. Although some excursions were unaligned with contemporary conceptions of land and wildlife preservation, he soon realized that his passion was being a good steward for his homelands. As an indigenous man of Orang Sungai (River People) lineage, Faijan has been taught many traditional practices interconnected with the region. This ethic has easily transferred over to his work at KOPEL where he has been working for the past 7 years.

Faijan first started at KOPEL as a ranger, working to monitor the jungle around Supu Caves. He quickly became interested in photography and shortly after purchased a camera to build up his photography skills. After two It was at years as a ranger, Faijan was promoted to a wildlife guide, and for the past 5 years has been in this position where he leads wildlife cruises, hikes, and reforestation activities with tourists and student groups. This work allows Faijan to continue improving his photography skills as well as his English skills, adding to his expertise in both Malay as well as the language of the Orang Sungai, Milian.

Figure 2. Faijan’s winning photo.

Recently, Faijan was the winner of the JOAS annual photography competition for indigenous people of Malaysia. Faijan has quickly gained expertise as a photographer and is also learning videography skills. With his position as a wildlife guide he has taken advantage of the many hours spent in the jungle. As Faijan shared with me, learning to shoot photography was a pivotal moment in his life where he realized the power of shooting wildlife through photography rather than as a hunter.

Figure 3. TRE Borneo final community night celebration June 2019.

I am amazed at the amount of knowledge Faijan holds of his traditional lands. Our wildlife cruises benefit from his ability to identify bird species flying high above in a matter of seconds and our hikes are accompanied by his deep ethnobotanical knowledge. Our position as educated western scientists do nothing to change our position here in this community as learners. The lived experience and passion which Faijan brings to our group cannot be conveyed through western notions of education which too often create rifts between educator and student. Faijan is considered by our entire class as a good friend and his humility, passion, and humor have helped us find comfort here in Orang Sungai traditional territory.

by Alexii Sigona

Environmental Studies Program